It is coming up on two years since Humboldt County Administrative Officer Phil Smith-Hanes decided to pull up stakes and move back to the area where he grew up. After six years leading a coastal California county, he is now living and working almost in the center of the nation as the County Administrator in Ellis County Kansas. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about the difference between the two counties, and what’s the same as well.
By Phil Smith-Hanes.
Phil, thank you for taking some time with us. First, remind us all, why did you make the decision to move?
I had been with Humboldt County for more than 10 years, including six as CAO, and was really getting an “itch” to move on to a new professional challenge. I felt I had contributed a lot to the organization and the community and a change of scenery would be good for me. Then my father, who just turned 85, was diagnosed with dementia. That really put a new focus on where I would be searching for my next job.
Even though you grew up in Kansas, it must have been a bit of a culture shock to move back?
It’s hard to find a good salad in this state! In all seriousness, the culture shock wasn’t as bad as the temperature shock. I know there are places in California that get cold or hot, but Humboldt County is not among them. Going from a nice coastal climate back to extremes like a wind chill of 29 degrees below zero and a heat index of 110 above has been the real adjustment. That and iceberg lettuce.
So, compare and contrast the two counties—Ellis County Kansas and Humboldt County California. How are they alike? And how are they different?
Each is the largest county by population in the northwestern part of its respective state. Each has a large regional medical center, a small commercial airport, and a state university. And in each, a single commodity has an outsized impact on the local economy – cannabis in Humboldt and oil in Ellis County.
Humboldt is about four times the area of Ellis County and has more than four times as many residents. And while the majority of Humboldters live in the unincorporated area, nearly 70 percent of Ellis Countians live in the largest of our four cities. The climate (as I’ve already noted) and topography are very different, with Humboldt having a lot more variance in altitude and Ellis County having a lot more variance in temperature.
The median home price in Ellis County in about half of what it is in Humboldt County (which makes us a very high-priced market for Kansas) and the unemployment rate is about one-third lower. Ellis County also enjoys access to a national rail line and an interstate highway, while Humboldt Bay provides a seaport.
Do they share any of the same issues?
I’m sure your readers will be shocked to hear this, but land use regulation is an issue everywhere. In both Humboldt and Ellis County, we have been sued by residents over land use decisions made by the Board. Another commonality is that the trend in state/county relations involves increasing interference in local affairs in exchange for decreased pass-through revenues.
And of course, every community is interested in economic development, which seems to be an area ripe for disagreement on strategy and tactics. Finally, both counties have gone through revenue shortfalls that required us to eliminate staff positions and cut other costs as well.
Is the county government structure the same there as it is here?
It’s similar, but there are some subtle differences. In California, each county has a five-member Board of Supervisors. In Kansas, Boards of County Commissioners can consist of three, five or seven members. Currently, one county has seven, a few have five, and most (including Ellis County) have three. Like California, we have one combined city/county with a larger Board and a Mayor.
Here in Ellis County, our elected officials are the County Attorney, County Clerk, Register of Deeds, Sheriff and Treasurer. In Humboldt we had the Assessor, Auditor-Controller, Clerk-Recorder, District Attorney, Sheriff-Coroner and Treasurer-Tax Collector. And in Kansas, both the Commissioners and the elected officials run in partisan elections. Starting in October, we will have four Republicans and four Democrats among the eight of them.
In Kansas, most counties operate emergency medical services but we do not operate social services, which are managed by the state. We also do not employ the public defenders, ag commissioner, or veterans service officers, and we don’t have grand juries.
How is your work different there than it was here?
In some ways, it’s very similar (cranking out an agenda, sitting in a Board meeting, trying to mesh the policy objectives and personalities of elected representatives, meeting with department heads, dealing with local cities, trying to make sure we are communicating with taxpayers, etc.).
The biggest difference is that Humboldt is a much larger organization, so we had a larger staff in the CAO’s office. In Ellis County, I am the executive assistant and the administrative analyst and the budget officer and the HR director. The great part about that is that I feel much more in tune with what’s going on in the organization. The not-so-great part is there’s no one to whom I can delegate the stuff I don’t like to do or am not particularly good at. I also find that all my great ideas take much longer to turn into reality because I’m the one in charge of doing so.
Personally, was it as hard to “go home” as they say it is?
Well, I didn’t exactly go “home,” because I’m still about two and a half hours from where I grew up. This area of the state is flatter and drier and has a very strong German Catholic culture that is different from other places I’ve lived in Kansas. What being back in my home state has allowed me to do is attend more events at my alma mater and be more involved with family beyond just my parents.
My sister is participating in the Art Walks here in our county seat, I got to see my great-nephew play in the state all-star baseball tournament for 15-year-olds recently, and my first cousin just dropped her oldest son off here at our local university for his freshman year of college. When I was flying back from California for visits, I really only had time to deal with my parents’ latest health challenge and missed out on all the fun stuff.